October 2015: Here’s a photo of the first year’s growth. Unfortunately I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair when an unusually hard frost (a sudden drop to 18 degrees F) came, and I hadn’t yet cut the garlands of blossom. They’ll climb again next year, with an earlier start and stronger roots, so my kitchen will eventually be decorated with hop blossom. (I have no plans to start making beer. If I have too many hops, I’ll be glad to give them away.) It’s an attractive plant and will provide pleasant shade on these south-facing windows.
June 2015: Every gardener gets to know the hardy volunteers – the plants that self-sow, coming back happily every year. We know the invasive types, too, that sometimes turn up on their own but are often once-loved species that don’t know when to stop. But today’s discovery in my new peony bed is a mystery: sturdy hop vines. The leaves in the middle of the photo are hops, sticky and twining, ready to grow to 20 feet or more.
I discovered them yesterday when I started weeding the new peony bed. I’d been in China for nearly a month, and this was by far the most overgrown spot. There were datura and tomato plants as well as common weeds, and lots of them. I knew immediately that we must have used sifted compost that had never got hot enough to kill the seeds. But what was the sticky vine that had woven itself through the entire patch? It looked like hops, but that made no sense.
I recognized it because 10 years ago I ordered a hop starter from Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon. I wasn’t planning to make beer, but wanted to have the dried flowers to make into sleep pillows (those were the days!) and vines to hang in the kitchen. In England, I’d been in kitchens where there were golden garlands of dried hop vines, pillowed with feathery clusters of dried blossom, pinned up over a mantelpiece.
Hops are fast-growing plants that need support, and I eventually scraped them as too much trouble. The last I remember is moving a few rhizomes to a shady spot by the back fence, but I hadn’t seen a trace of them in years.
That shady spot was near the compost bins, and my guess is that somehow a plant had managed to grow enough each year to keep the rhizomes alive, and when we finally dug to the bottom of that bin and sifted the soil, a few pieces came through and were large enough to come to life, out in the sunny spot where I’d planted the peonies.
The good news is that I now have a spot for a hop vine, on the south-facing front of the house. With a little luck, this volunteer, this phoenix, is at long last going to provide us with beautiful, fragrant garlands. Maybe we’ll even get around to making those sleep pillows – or even some beer. (Here’s where the original plant came from: Williamette Hops at Nichols Garden Nursery. And here are instructions for growing hops against the wall of a house.)